Smart City initiative seeks to improve public problems with technology

Making Memphis a smart city is a top priority for the City of Memphis, and through its information services team and Innovate Memphis, the city has been seeking civic-minded and smart city technology-based startups to develop creative solutions for problems facing Memphis in transportation, crime and public safety space.

Efforts such as The Smart City Hackathons and The Sky High Civic Technology Accelerator, hosted by Start Co., fit into the city’s Smart Memphis effort which seeks to use Memphians' native knowledge to create tech-based products that solve public problems and find new ways of to capture and share public data.

“Hackathons and the Sky High Accelerator are part of this larger effort to make Memphis a smarter, more efficient city," said Shelby Peranich, director of community engagement for entrepreneurship support organization Start Co.

Brandon Ellis, center, in partnership with fellow UofM graduate Kareem Dasilva, has developed a concept for technology that helps the city streamline identification of potholes through machine learning. (Submitted)
"Looking more specifically, I think the Hackathon helps move the city in a smarter direction because it generated solutions from Memphians to solve problems and it also reinforced the work Start Co., Innovate Memphis and the City of Memphis have committed to doing to improve the city through technology,” Peranich added.

And if there is one near universal problem plaguing Memphis’ sprawling city streets, many would say it’s the potholes. Travel almost any avenue or lane and you’ll likely encounter at least one tread-busting indentation.

Memphis-based MemPatch took top honors at Smart City: Transportation & Mobility Hackathon hosted by Tech 901 at the Crosstown Concourse on March 15-17. MemPatch is developing a way to identify and catalogue potholes for immediate or future repairs.

The Smart City: Transportation & Mobility Hackathon was the latest event presented by Start Co., Innovate Memphis and the City of Memphis to solicit solutions for problems that affect pedestrian safety and commuting. Over the course of the weekend, participants had 48 hours to develop their solutions to common mobility problems. Innovative solutions utilized gamification, augmented reality and interactivity. Teams included developers, designers, project managers and domain experts.

“We are releasing an app this summer that allows you to take the picture of a pothole, and you can report it to the city of Memphis. The city will then get it fixed,” said Kareem Dasilva, who co-founded MemPatch with fellow University of Memphis graduate Brandon Ellis.

After downloading an app to a mobile device, pedestrians take a picture of a pothole to be categorized by location and urgency. The information is then sent to a database to be evaluated. Anyone from the city of 3-1-1 can pull the data and chart the next steps to fix the pothole.

“There is a ‘Report This Issue’ button where it is a streamlined process. They can press a button, report a pothole and continue on with their day. We are just trying to make a simple solution to reporting such a big issue,” said Ellis.

“We train images, so when the pothole is identified by our camera it will be based on what we already trained it on to determine how bad the pothole is,” he added.

As winner of the Hackathon, the MemPatch founders received Asus laptops and are will be working to add the technology to public transit.

Ellis, along with Dasilva, drummed up the idea while taking part in the Smart City Collaborative, a group of techies, web developers and innovators who came together on their own after a Smart City 48 Hour Launch event last November. Dasilva said participants were so inspired from the collaboration that they didn’t want to have to wait for the next formal event. They decided to take matters into their own hands and organize their own civic-minded organization calling it the Smart City Collaborative.

They took what they had learned and experienced at that Smart City 48 Hour Launch and continue the process with monthly meetings to discuss ideas, concepts and plans on how they can help transform Memphis into a smart city.

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The next step for the MemPatch founders will be marrying the technology with a fleet of Memphis Area Transit Authority buses. In that process, a camera is affixed to the vehicle and when it spots a pothole it will automatically take the picture. The bus is also outfitted with a Raspberry Pi, which is a small programmable computer, to collect the needed data and forward it to the database.

“The biggest issue is about 85 percent of the potholes that get fixed in Memphis aren’t reported. Road crews cover almost 7,000 miles by themselves. They stop by, they see a pothole and they fix it. We are trying to streamline that process by having someone actually report a pothole and feel more engaged. We can really get way more potholes being addressed,” said Ellis.

At the March hackathon, the pair competed against seven other teams including second place winner, Dynamavision, whose technology uses AI enabled cameras to make the city safer via lighted pathways and gathers pedestrian data.

“It was exciting to see how advanced their technology was after just 48 hours of work,” said Peranich. “We have an accelerator program that is part of the Summer of Acceleration called the Sky High Civic Technology Accelerator. Applications actually closed last Friday, but we were so excited about the results of the hackathon that we opened them back up.”

Along with connections to industry experts and resources to help them scale the business, an investment of $50,000 from Start Co. is awarded to startups working through the Sky High accelerator. MemPatch did apply for the program and applications are now moving into the review process for the Sky High accelerator, which will begin in May. Up to five teams will be invited to participate in the Sky High accelerator, which is one of four accelerators led by Start Co. and other local entrepreneurship partners. 

Veterans of several hackathons, the MemPatch entrepreneurs also won last November’s Smart City 48 Launch with their pitch for SweetSpot, a Bluetooth sensor that allows business owners to analyze the foot traffic of their business. Events like the hackathons with exposure to like-minded innovators have been instrumental not only to their success, but to moving Memphis forward toward its goal of building a smarter city.

As for building the prototype for MemPatch, creating a roadmap for a business is their next step. Given they have an idea and a rudimentary prototype of what they want to get done, they believe it will be easy to design that roadmap if they get accepted into the accelerator. But they attribute to where they are now to the collaboration of innovators they’ve been exposed to through these civic engagement events.

“To build a smart city, it starts with innovation. You have to work with people that are like you, that are driven towards you. That thought process only comes with experience. You get that experience by going to hackathons, learning to build realistic expectations for what you can and can’t build,” said Ellis.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.